No team knows the agony of instant elimination like the Oakland Athletics. In the eight seasons of the Major League Baseball wild card game, only the A’s found a way to lose it three times: to Kansas City in 2014, the Yankees in 2018 and Tampa Bay last October.
So when the A’s dropped their playoff opener to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday at the Oakland Coliseum, they were hard-wired for how to respond. Gloom filled the clubhouse.
“You get in the clubhouse, no one’s saying anything, it’s just quiet,” infielder Chad Pinder said on Thursday. “It’s almost like everybody at the same time was like: ‘Wait, we’re not packing up. We don’t have to catch a flight. We’re going back to the hotel and we’re coming right back here to play.’”
Indeed, baseball’s new, expanded playoff format gave Oakland another chance: The first round is now a best-of-three series, not a one-game showdown. The A’s took advantage by surviving on Wednesday and then advancing with a 6-4 victory on Thursday, setting up a best-of-five division series in Los Angeles next week against their nemesis: the Houston Astros.
You know the back story by now. Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers, a former Astro, told The Athletic last November that Houston had illegally stolen signs on its way to a World Series title in 2017. An M.L.B. investigation confirmed the allegations, but as part of their agreement to cooperate, no Houston players were disciplined.
The scandal and the lack of punishment roiled players around the league, and the A’s kept Fiers away from the Astros; he started none of Oakland’s 10 games against Houston in this abbreviated regular season. The teams brawled in August when Oakland’s Ramon Laureano charged the Houston dugout after a coach, Alex Cintron, insulted him. But mostly the A’s got revenge by playing better.
Oakland went 7-3 against Houston this season and won the division by seven games, stopping the Astros’ string of three American League West titles. Oakland closer Liam Hendriks said the A’s were eager to build off that success next week.
“But it’s also not being petty and letting our emotions get the better of us by trying to be over the top and vengeful and everything like this,” he said. “We’ve played them enough times this year. We had a good record against them; they know that, we know that. And now we’re going to go into a series and hopefully take care of business early.”
He added: “I believe in this team, and we’re going to try to stick it to ’em as much as we can and prove that we’re the best team in the A.L. West now.”
Hendriks threw 49 pitches on Wednesday but could not get the final out, turning that over to Jake Diekman. But he came back Thursday with an overpowering ninth, striking out the side after a leadoff single. Hendriks was Oakland’s seventh reliever on Thursday, rewarding Manager Bob Melvin’s faith in a bullpen with the majors’ best earned run average this season, at 2.72.
“This is what we’re going to do,” Hendriks said. “We’re going to ride our ’pen as hard as we can.”
The A’s made several stellar defensive plays on Thursday, including a juggling, over-the-shoulder catch by second baseman Tommy La Stella to preserve a tie and end the fifth inning. The A’s were tied for the fourth best defense in the majors this season, according to Fangraphs, after ranking first last year and third in 2018.
“That’s our trademark, really,” Melvin said. “We miss Matt Chapman, obviously; he’s a double platinum award winner. But defense has really been our consistent strength for three years.”
Chapman, a sublime defender and slugger at third base, is out for the season after hip surgery last month. But the versatile La Stella, an All-Star last season who was acquired from the Angels in an August trade, has helped cover the loss. La Stella had just five homers this season, but fanned only 12 times and had a .370 on-base percentage.
“We haven’t been the power-hitting team here for the last month or whatever,” Melvin said. “Tommy’s kind of been the guy everybody looks to in playing a little differently, getting on base more, putting the barrel on the ball and handing it off to the next guy.”
To get La Stella, the A’s traded infielder Franklin Barreto, who was considered the prize of the trade package they got from Toronto for Josh Donaldson after the 2014 season. Donaldson had just led Oakland to its third playoff appearance in a row, but the A’s had not advanced — and while Barreto faded as a prospect, the A’s quickly built their way back into contention.
Until Thursday, though, they had not moved on in the playoffs since a 2006 division series victory over Minnesota. Before that, they had lost four first-round series in a row — in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 — and they have not won the World Series in 31 years.
The Astros did not exactly cheat them out of a title in 2017; the A’s finished in last place that season. The Astros became the bullies of the division, but the A’s have finally chased them down — and now comes a chance to knock them out.
“When we came into spring training this year, we expected to be in this spot, and that’s part of the battle,” Melvin said. “It’s not easy to do — what comes first, the confidence or the success? You have to have a little confidence to have success. That’s what built up the last couple of years, and it finally broke through to this point.”